People get sick. That’s a fact of life. A few places around the country (Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Connecticut) have laws that guarantee workers can earn paid sick time to use when they become ill and can’t work. But that’s not the case in most of the United States. In fact, the U.S. and Suriname are the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere that don’t, as a matter of public policy, ensure workers can earn paid sick days on the job. Internationally, that puts America in the company of other well-known worker utopias like India, Chad, Syria, Somalia, and North Korea.
By its very nature, paid sick days help workers by ensuring they don’t lose pay – or their job – when they get sick. And paid sick time promotes public health by keeping sick people away from those who can be infected. Back in 2009, lack of paid sick time is estimated to have created 5 million additional cases of the H1N1 flu nationwide. (Not that we seem to have learned our lesson – here we are in the middle of the worst flu season in a decade, and 80% of low-income workers and 79% of food workers still can’t earn paid sick time on the job.) There’s also a growing body of evidence showing paid sick days help businesses by reducing employee turnover and increasing productivity.
So why is the U.S. the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t ensure its citizens can earn sick time – especially given the huge health and economic benefits for workers, businesses and public health?
The political opposition to earned sick days comes primarily from business associations and lobby groups that threaten job losses if people can earn paid sick time. Of course, you’ll rarely hear those lobby groups note that after Connecticut passed a paid sick days law, employment grew in the economic sectors most likely to be impacted by it. Nor will they acknowledge that after San Francisco passed its own paid sick days law in 2007, the city saw its employment grow more strongly, than the surrounding municipalities that don’t ensure paid sick time.
And you’ll never hear them quote the business owners – including those originally opposing these laws – who have since discovered paid sick days don’t hurt:
In March, 2011, the owner of the U.S.S. Chowder Pot restaurants testified before the state legislature that if paid sick leave became law, “I would be forced to close both restaurants resulting in a loss of approximately 240 full time and part time jobs.” Today, both restaurants are hiring.
Nor will they recognize the fact that other business owners report paid sick time has actually improved their business:
When the San Francisco paid sick days law was first being debated I, like many other local businesses, was concerned; now I appreciate its value. It creates a better, less stressful work environment and increases employee morale. (Sam Mogannam, Owner, Bi-Rite Market, San Francisco)
There are some cracks showing in the business lobby’s facade, however:
- The Employment Policies Institute, a well-known front group for business lobbyist Richard Berman, has had a hard time finding Connecticut employers who have had problems with the state’s paid sick days law. Just 20% of employers (out of 800) responded to his survey – and 87% of those said workplace illness was not a serious problem for them. Presumably, Connecticut’s law has little to no effect on them, since (apparently) their workers don’t get sick.
- The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), has long claimed their members oppose paid family leave and paid sick days. But NFIB members themselves rank minimum paid family leave and paid sick leave standards just 64th out of 75 possible “critical concerns”.
For the time being, the threat of job losses and other fear tactics can still keep many legislators from taking action. But the costs of falling in line for big business – in the form of lower paychecks for workers, more visits to the ER and doctor’s office, more kids going to school sick (because parents can’t stay home with them), and reduced quality of life overall – are becoming harder for people to bear.
As more businesses get real experience with paid sick days laws, and more workers find their paychecks – or employment – are at risk if they need a sick day, coalitions are mobilizing in places like New York, Portland, Philadelphia to ensure every worker can earn sick time on the job. It’s only a matter of time before the U.S. joins the rest of the world in ensuring its citizens can earn paid sick time on the job.
By EOI Intern Bill Dow